/ 24 October 2011

Afghanistan ‘would side with Pakistan in war with US’

Afghanistan 'would Side With Pakistan In War With Us'

The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, says he would side with Pakistan in the event of war with the US, in a surprising political twist that is likely to disconcert his western allies.

“If there is war between Pakistan and America, we will stand by Pakistan,” Karzai said in a television interview, placing his hand on his heart and describing Pakistan as a “brother” country.

The offer was widely interpreted as a rhetorical flourish rather than a significant offer of defence co-operation. Despite recent tension between Pakistan and the US, open warfare is a remote possibility.

Karzai, who is scrambling to ensure his political future in advance of the US military drawdown in 2014, needs Pakistani help to bring the Taliban to peace talks. And in the event of any conflict his army, which is wholly dependent on US money and training, would be in no position to back Pakistan.

Nevertheless the interview with Geo, Pakistan’s largest network, was at stark variance with the tone of a visit to the region days earlier by Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, and David Petraeus, the CIA director.

In Kabul, Clinton bluntly warned Pakistan that the US would act unilaterally if Islamabad failed to crack down on the Taliban-linked Haqqani network inside its North Waziristan sanctuary.

Clinton then flew to Islamabad to deliver the message in person during a four-hour meeting with Pakistan’s top generals, calling on them to bring the Haqqanis to the negotiating table, destroy the group’s leadership or pave the way for the US to do so.

Karzai’s interview with Geo was aired barely 24 hours after Clinton left the region. Afghanistan owed Pakistan a great debt for sheltering millions of refugees over the past three decades, he said, and he stressed that his foreign policy would not be dictated by any outside power.

“Anybody that attacks Pakistan, Afghanistan will stand with Pakistan,” he said. “Afghanistan will never betray their brother.”

Hypocrisy and rhetoric
The remark, which went further than other Karzai outbursts critical of the US, was viewed negatively not only in the US but in Afghanistan where opponents accused him of hypocrisy given Kabul’s difficult relationship with Pakistan.

The US embassy in Kabul, responding to reporters’ questions, said it was up to the Afghan government to explain Karzai’s remarks. An embassy spokesperson, Gavin Sundwall, tried to play down the row. He told the Associated Press: “This is not about war with each other. This is about a joint approach to a threat to all three of our countries: insurgents and terrorists who attack Afghans, Pakistanis and Americans.”

A western diplomat, speaking anonymously, described Karzai’s comments as unfortunate. “The phraseology could have been better,” the diplomat said.

Karzai has wildly swung away from and then closer to Pakistan over the past 18 months as efforts to draw the Taliban into peace talks have gained momentum.

First he welcomed the Pakistani military chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, and the ISI spy chief, General Shuja Pasha, to talks in Kabul. But then this month he flew to New Delhi to sign a “strategic partnership” with India that strengthened trade and security ties between the two countries but infuriated Pakistan, where it was seen as a fresh sign of Afghan perfidy.

Karzai is trying to strike a delicate balance between reaching a peace deal and managing stringent criticism from non-Pashtuns groups and their political representatives, who accuse him of drawing too close to Pakistan.

The latest comments reignited that criticism, as evidenced in lively debates on Afghan television talkshows on Sunday.

Karzai has appeared increasingly isolated since the killing of his powerful half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai and peace envoy Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Analysts say Pakistani policy is driven by a desire to ensure that its arch-rival India does not enjoy political or military support from Kabul.

Pakistan’s military and ISI spy service have offered to facilitate talks with the Taliban but cannot become a guarantor to their success, an official told the Dawn newspaper. “Pakistan must not be blamed in case of failure of attempts [by the US] for reconciliation with the Taliban as it does not spoon-feed them,” the official said. —